Lascelles Abercrombie remarks, "the tragedy.. . is subdued compared with that of The Return of the Native, but it has a terribly moving climax in the death of Giles and a close of keenest pathos, of sorrow intolerably sweet, in Marty's lament over his grave." The Woodlanders, as its title indicates, deals with the life of the dwellers of the Woodlands on the skirts of Blackmoor Vale in Dorset, especially with the tragic story of two of the noblest figures created by Hardy, viz. Giles Winterborne and Marty South.
The opening of the novel shows a poor girl, Marty South, secretly in love with Giles Winterborne, an apple and cider merchant; but Giles loves and wants to marry Grace Melbury, daughter of a Little Hentock timber-merchant. However, when Grace returns home after finishing her education at school, Giles finds her to be too good and sophisticated for him. On her father's advice, Grace agrees to marry Dr. Edred Fitzpiers, a newcomer to the place, whom she knows to have had an affair with another girl, Suke Damson. After some time, Fitzpier's affair with a rich widow, Felice Charmond. Once, badly injured because of a fall from the horse, Fitzpiers is taken by Mrs. Charmond to the continent. Hoping to get a divorce from her husband (Fitzpiers), Grace encourages Giles, and they come nearer together. But soon it is learnt that the desired divorce is not possible legally. Moreover, Fitzpiers comes back with Mrs Charrnond from travels on the continent. Coming to know that he is now going to claim her as her husband, Grace takes shelter in Giles's cottage, and requests him to escort her to the town. Meanwhile, it begins to rain heavily, and they cannot move out of the cottage. Giles is ill; but out of a sense of decency he accommodates Grace inside the cottage while he himself stays outside in an uncomfortable shelter made of 'four hurdles thatched with brake-fern', where he is to die after a few days because of the exposure to inclement weather. While Giles is dying, Fitzpiers arrives there in search of Grace, and tells her about his condition. Giles dies, and is mourned by Grace and Marty South who are there beside his deathbed. Mrs. Charmond has by now died too, and Grace and Fitzpiers are re-united as wife and husband, whereas Marty South is left alone lamenting by the side of Giles's tomb.